The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on John 11:1-45.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed or not, but there has been a common thread running through all the Gospel stories we’ve read in this Lenten season. In each of these stories, Jesus takes a common thing, a recognized symbol of Jewish religion, and Jesus has made it point beyond itself to a radical new relationship with God.
Talking with Nicodemus, Jesus took the symbol of birth, and made it point to a new life in the Spirit.
Talking with the woman at the well, Jesus took the symbol of water, and made it point to a source of eternal life gushing up from within.
Talking with the man born blind, Jesus took the symbol of sight, and made it point to working in the new possibilities opened by God.
And in today’s story, talking with Martha, Jesus takes life itself and gives it a new meaning, makes life itself point beyond itself to living in God.
More specifically, Jesus takes the promise of resurrection and gives it a new layer of meaning. A lot of Christians think that believing in resurrection is something that started with Jesus, that the promise of life beyond this life was something new that came with Christ, and before that, people had no such hope. But believing in resurrection was actually a pretty standard part of Jewish religion in Jesus’ time. It goes back at least as far as the Book of Daniel, where the prophet foresees that, after a time of great anguish, “those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake” and the “wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” The Pharisees taught that the righteous would be raised up to life at the end of time – and strange as it may seem, that was a point on which Pharisees and Jesus’ followers agreed, and both were pooh-poohed by the Sadducees.
And that Jewish religious background is mirrored in our story. When Martha scolds Jesus for not arriving in time to save Lazarus from dying – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” – Jesus says to her “Your brother will rise again.” And Martha, without any apparent hesitation, agrees with him: “Yes, Lord,” she says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Everybody knows that. What Martha doesn’t say, but is fairly brooding there in her silence, is “Yes, but what good does resurrection-on-the-last-day do me now? I miss Lazarus now. I am grieving now. You weren’t there to save us before; what kind of life is there for me now?”
And that’s when Jesus gives a radical new interpretation to resurrection. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
God’s promise of resurrection to eternal life, Jesus says, is not just something that is far off in the distant future, not just a hope on a horizon far far away. God’s promise of eternal life is something that we can begin to experience here and now – it can be a new quality of life, a new way of living, that can enter even into the physical life of our bodies and change the way we are living now.
And that’s a radically different way to understand resurrection, for Martha – and for us too.
Most of us today, I would expect, think of these things sequentially (if we think them at all): first you live, then you die, then you are raised up to eternal life. We think of these as completely separate things. And in point of fact, for a lot of Christians in the modern period, thinking about eternal life as afterlife has become increasingly problematic. Ever since the scientific revolution, more and more people have had trouble with the “supernatural” parts of our faith – like resurrection. Thomas Jefferson very famously edited his Bible, to take out the supernatural bits and the miracles, but to leave in the moral teaching, because that’s what a “rational” person can believe in these days. And a lot of us today aren’t too different from Mr Jefferson in that respect. Resurrection, afterlife, eternal life all belong to that “supernatural” category, and some of us aren’t too sure what to make of it. That’s why a lot of people, faithful people, I’ve known have said to me “I don’t much care about an afterlife; let the next world take care of itself; it’s this life we have to make the most of.”
And that’s why it comes as such a surprise when Jesus breaks down the barrier between those two categories. Resurrection to eternal life, as Jesus presents it, is not just something we look forward to as a reward in an afterlife, but it is something that can begin to live in us right here and now.
And the focus of this new understanding of resurrection is relationship. The life that does not die begins in us, Jesus says, when we believe in him. And in the Fourth Gospel – in all the New Testament, actually – believing is not just about what you think, it’s about how you relate. Believing means trusting; it means being faithful; it means holding something in your heart, and giving your heart to what you hold; believing means beloving. When we love Jesus, and know in our hearts we are beloved by Jesus, and love one another as Jesus loves us – then we begin to live, really live, and that real life grows in us, transforming us, bit and bit and step by step, until our life is woven into God’s life in a way that God will never ever ever let go or let die.
And it is that very quality of life-giving love that we can start to live right here and now. When Lazarus walks out of the tomb, it is the sign that love is what gives life. When Martha and Mary unbind him and let him go, it is the sign that love is what sets us free us to live. When we love as Jesus loves, it is the sign that we are living the resurrection and the life right now.
Maybe you know someone who has been given new life through the power of love. Someone once shared with me their story of how they went through a very dark time: addicted; out of control; their marriage shaky; their job threatened; feeling like they had no future; hitting a very classic sense of rock-bottom. But then, he said, a friend hit him with some “tough love” and practically dragged him to a twelve-step meeting, and then another one, and another. And he began to realize that in that twelve-step group there was a quality of acceptance, of non-judgmentalism; they really supported each other, each one gave what they had to give and received what they needed to receive; in short they loved each other, with a brotherly/sisterly/compassionate love. And realizing that he was so loved, and that he indeed loved them, was what opened him to the higher power that gave him the strength to stay clean. When he told me this story he’d been sober about two years; his marriage was back together; he’d gotten a new job; he said it felt like he had come back to life. He said – all on his own, mind you, without my suggesting it – he felt like Lazarus walking out of that tomb. All because of love.
So think about it for a moment: Where in your experience has love given you life? Where has the power of love raised you up to be more giving and more receiving and more enjoying and more alive than you ordinarily would think of yourself being? And can you see in that love the love of Jesus, the love of God, the love that lives and will never die? Can you offer yourself now to love like Jesus, to give a little more life into the world to be woven up into the eternal life and love of God?
Jesus said “I am the resurrection and the life” – and by saying that he radically reinterpreted the relationship between the eternal, unending love of God and the daily giving-and-receiving of our ordinary earthly life. As we move now through these final days of Lent, toward Holy Week and the joy of Easter Day, let us cleanse our hearts, let us believe in Jesus, so that we may be filled with the love that raises up life. Amen.